The Legacy of Juan Peron


The government of Juan Perón was one of the most progressive in Latin American history in the 20th century. Here is a list of its accomplishments:


1. Taking advantage of government leniency if not outright support, trade unions were formed in every industry. 2. Social security was made universal. 3. Education was made free to all who qualified. 4. Vast low-income housing projects were created. 5. Paid vacations became standard. 6. A working student was given one paid week before every major examination. 7. All workers (including white-collar employees like bank tellers, etc.) were guaranteed free medical care and half of their vacation-trip expenses. 8. A mother-to-be received 3 paid months off prior to and after giving birth. 9. Workers recreation centers were constructed all over Argentina, including a vast resort in the lower Sierras that included 8 hotels, scores of cabins, movies, swimming pools and riding stables. This resort was available to workers for 15 days a year, at the cost of 15 cents per day, all services included.


In order to strengthen Argentina's economy, Perón created the Argentina Institute for Promotion of Exchange (AIPE), a monopoly that handled all commodity exports. Cattle, wheat, etc. were sold at a high price overseas. While not socialism, this measure was consistent with the traditional Marxist demand for a monopoly on foreign trade. Perón also bought out the local IT&T operation and the railroad and trolley system from Great Britain. He paid off Argentina's foreign debt and launched a 5-year plan in 1946 that covered everything from the woman's right to vote to shipbuilding.


By 1954 Perón had initiated more than 45 major hydroelectric projects designed to produce 2 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, 20 times the amount that was available in 1936. While in hindsight we can say that these projects had ecological drawbacks, they still represented an audacious step in the direction of making every citizen's life more fulfilling. By 1947, Argentina had launched its own iron and steel industry. It was also moving forward in coal extraction and other raw materials using the most advanced technology available at the time. It began to make farm machinery, planes and cars in modest numbers. Ship-building had expanded by 500 percent under Perón's regime.


But Perón failed to sustain these progressive changes over the long haul. All of the gains of the Perón era have disappeared as workers' lives and fortunes have gone downhill. What happened?


Basically Perón failed because his reforms were not radical enough. For example, although he raised rural wages and forced landlords to sell cheap to the AIPE, he refused to take the next step when they balked. He did not nationalize the land. Thus, the amount of land under cultivation dropped from nearly 22 million hectares in 1934-38 to just over 17 million in 1955. What you had was a producer's strike, not that much different from the kind Allende was confronted by.


His philosophy was not fascist at all, but a 'third way' called "Justicialismo" that tried to steer clear between capitalism and socialism. Although I have not made a systematic study of the ideological roots of Perónism, it appears closely related to the APRA movement launched by Haya de la Torre in Peru. Progressives associated with this movement, including Alan Garcia, have a record of caving in to imperialism. The one thing that they can do to keep imperialism at bay is impermissible: to arm the workers and expropriate the expropriators. Despite their inadequacies, the workers movement has an obligation to defend such governments under attack from imperialism.


After Perón was overthrown by the military in 1955, the ruling class took steps almost immediately to foster the development of democracy, which in reality was a fig leaf for their brutality and greed. Arturo Frondizi was groomed to take over as the first 'democratic' President.


In this venture he was backed by a millionaire ex-Communist named Rogelio Frigerio, who defined democracy as "that system where money speaks louder than principles." It was no accident that an ex-Communist would lend his energy and resources to such a project. As a Communist, Frigerio--following the party line--was for the overthrow of Perón. Now as a capitalist, he could have his cake and eat it too.


Using funds from Frigerio, Frondizi launched a magazine titled "Qué" that recruited both rightist and leftist talent. All you needed to get a job was a facile pen and hatred for the Perónist legacy.


Meanwhile, Frigerio had no trouble making pals with the military, even though his magazine was promoting 'democracy'. Paying heed to Mexico's revolutionary President Alvaro Obregón, who once said, "I do not know of a single general able to resist a cannonade of one million pesos," Frigerio got no less than two hundred generals to serve on the boards of corporations he either influenced, owned or controlled.


Once Frondizi was elected, he gave the oligarchy tax concessions and lucrative contracts, all in the interests of the kind of 'development' promoted by the likes of Walt Rostow and Brad DeLong. This went hand in hand with opening up Argentina to aggressive foreign investment. To show his sincerity, he agreed to pay American corporations $60 million for twenty-two power plants expropriated by Perón.


Although some projects were successful (joint oil exploration with Standard Oil in Patagonia), others were colossal flops. Steel production had ground to a halt. By 1962 the country was only producing 600,000 tons when it needed 3,000,000. Meat production dropped from a high of 145,000 metric tons under Perón to 87,000 by the end of 1961.


With the drop off in production, a destructive trade imbalance ensued:


Year     Deficit (in millions)

1960    $237

1961    $450

1962    $640


These imbalances, in turn, caused the money supply to tighten up and inflation outran wage increases. In the period following the overthrow of Perón, wages went up 400 percent while the price of food went up 750 percent.


The economic contradictions deepened. This led to a series of workers revolts in cities like Cordoba where auto workers built barricades and fought the army and police. Due to a combination of political immaturity and sectarianism, a revolution did not occur in Argentina despite a clear desire for fundamental change.


We are fortunate to have compañeros like Nestor on these mailing lists who represent the collective memory of Argentina's working class. Now that workers in Argentina have answered the military, the comprador bourgeoisie and their friends in the United States with a general strike, we might once again see a re-emergence of the old mole revolution. This time we are pledged to strengthen the Marxist pole through all means available to us. This is the meaning of proletarian internationalism.


(This post relied heavily on information contained in the chapter on Argentina in the out-of-print "The Great Fear in Latin America" by John Gerassi. Gerassi was Latin America bureau chief of Time Magazine.)